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A critical bookshelf

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Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:


First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).

On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.

These three books do exactly what it says on the tin: annotated lists of the top one hundred genre books, as chosen by the editors. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and Fantasy: The 100 Best Books are sister-works; I’m guessing Pringle wanted to do both but ended up approaching another publisher for his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels . Interesting books, but I can’t say I agree with the majority of their choices.

Two important critical works, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis and Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and a couple of general guides to sf, David Wingrove’s The Science Fiction Source Book and David Pringle’s The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction.

I’m not sure what use is The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, but never mind. Likewise, the Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Zool is actually the Oxford SF Group). Essential SF is, well, just that – at least according to the authors. Who’s Who in Science Fiction lists the pseudonyms used by genre writers.

Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.

I seem to recall Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder causing something of a fuss when it was published in the late 1990s. I enjoyed it and, like Westfahl, I’ve always felt science fiction began in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories. The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology is just that, and the title of British Science Fiction and Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys pretty accurately describes its contents too.

A pair of British critics: Paul Kincaid’s A Very British Genre and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction; and Gwyneth Jones’ Deconstructing the Starships and Imagination / Space.

Some books about writers: Snake’s Hands is a study of the fiction of John Crowley; The Cherryh Odyssey covers CJ Cherryh’s works; Parietal Games is criticism about, and by, M John Harrison; Heinlein in Dimension is about Robert Heinlein; and The Universes of EE Smith is about the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Some books about one writer: Gene Wolfe. The Long and the Short of It does not cover any specific work of Wolfe’s, unlike Solar Labyrinth, Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition and Attending Daedalus, all of which are about The Book Of The New Sun. I reviewed Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition for Interzone.

I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.

The Delany Intersection and the Starmont Reader’s Guide are both about Delany’s fiction. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is Delany’s first and probably best-known work of criticism, though he’s written nearly a dozen such books. Jack Vance – Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography is just that.

Finally, two books about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master Of Adventure about his fiction and A Guide to Barsoom specific to his Mars books. Who Writes Science Fiction? and Wordsmiths of Wonder are both collections of interviews with genre writers.

As well as the above books, I also have a number of science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedias and reference works. But that’s a post for another day.

9 thoughts on “A critical bookshelf

  1. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy is recommended, much of her analysis applies to SF too.
    It probably could benefit from an update but Sarah Lefanu’s In The Chinks of The World Machine is an interesting feminist SF overview.

  2. Some from my own collection: the Michael Ashley 4-volume ‘History of the Science Fiction Magazine’ (recently revised into one volume and a new title, I understand); ‘William Atheling Jnr.’ ‘s ‘The issue at hand/More issues at hand’ (and that, of course, was James Blish), Paul A. Carter’s ‘The creation of tomorrow; fifty years of magazine science fiction’; ‘Science fiction, social conflict and war’, edited by one Philip John Davies; John Griffin’s ‘Three tomorrows; American, British and Soviet science fiction’; Edward James’ ‘Science fiction in the 20th century’; Dave Langford’s collected reviews in ‘Critical assembly’ and ‘The SEX column’; Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Microworlds’; Chris Morgan’s ‘The shape of futures past’ (mainly Victorian proto-sf), Adam Roberts’ ‘The history of science fiction’; Stan Nicolls’ ‘Wordsmiths of wonder’; Aldiss and Harrison’s ‘Hell’s cartographers’; Bob Shaw’s ‘How to write science fiction’; and I.F.Clarke’s ‘The Great War with Germany, 1890 – 1914′.

    I rather suspect the series “Writers of the 21st century” was a marketing ploy to make the subjects seem futuristic and high in ‘goshwowery’…

    I’ve never gone out with the express intention of collecting critical works on sf; these are the ones that have just crossed my path when I’ve had £20 or so burning a hole in my pocket (or sometimes less. A surprising number of these I’ve picked up as remainders). And all of which are pretty well still in front of the slowly advancing wavefront of my LibraryThing cataloguing!

    • I’ve seen the Athelings several times and always fancied getting them. I do have a couple of books by Langford – Starcombing and The Silence of the Langford.

  3. When the essays in the Taplinger “Writers of the 21st Century” series were commissioned in the 1970s, the 21st century was a pretty good hike futureward–and the implication was that these really were writers who would remain significant into those science-fictional times. So yes, the series name was a “marketing ploy,” but one reflecting enthusiasm for a newly-viable area of study, teaching, and critical writing.

    I have about 25 running feet of SF/F criticism, bibilography, reference, and history on my shelves, most of it accumulated between 1962 (when I wrote my first term paper) and 1985 (when I stopped teaching). The Taplinger series was part of a publishing boomlet that started in the 70s and allowed quite a few junior opportunities to write about books and writers that previously had been ignored by the publishers and journals (outside of Extrapolation or fan-based small presses).

  4. Make that “junior academics”–the opportunities were all grown up, if not of the same august status as those for, say, Wordsworth scholars.

  5. Have you heard of Science Fiction: An Introduction, by Pat Wheeler, published by Continuum? It’s one of the Continuum Literary Genres, and it’s the hardest one to find. Would you say this book is worth searching for?

  6. Pingback: Lots of fingers pointing… « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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